This morning, Andrew Sullivan wrote an article in the New York Magazine titled “The Republic Repeals Itself“. It’s very dark (and it’s completely in line with what he has been writing for months) – but it makes you realise just how quickly we’re ‘normalising’ some of the Trump excess, rationalising it as campaign spin. Some quotes from the piece:

“His support is not like that of a democratic leader but of a cult leader fused with the idea of the nation. If he fails, as he will, he will blame others, as he always does. And his cult followers will take their cue from him and no one else. “In Trump We Trust,” as his acolyte Ann Coulter titled her new book. And so there will have to be scapegoats — media institutions, the Fed, the “global conspiracy” of bankers and Davos muckety-mucks he previewed in his rankly anti-Semitic closing ad, rival politicians whom he will demolish by new names of abuse, foreign countries and leaders who do not cooperate, and doubtless civilians who will be targeted by his ranks of followers and demonized from the bully pulpit itself. The man has no impulse control and massive reserves of vengeance and hatred. In time, as his failures mount, the campaigns of vilification will therefore intensify. They will have to.”

“A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it. A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.”

I realise that some (much) of this is rhetoric. For now, at least. But speaking from the tip of Africa, where we’re all too familiar with what it means to live under authoritarian rule, I’m reminded of just how easy it is to slip into the role of mindless compliance.

And the trouble is: we have a tendency to overstate our own independence of thought. I have some science for this.


Within Us All: The Inner Nazi

I’m not sure how many of us have heard of the now-infamous Milgram Experiment of obedience, but allow me to horrify you if you haven’t.

Around 3 months into the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to answer the question: were all those Nazis really just following orders?

The basic concept worked as follows: an unwitting volunteer was invited to assume the role of a “teacher”, and ask a student a series of memory tests. For each wrong answer, the volunteer was instructed to administer a progressively-more-dangerous electric shock.

The key players:

  1. The Experimenter: being the person running the experiment.
  2. The Teacher (the subject of the experiment): being the administer of stimulus.
  3. The Learner: being the recipient of the electric shocks.

The set-up:

  1. The subjects thought that they were coming to help with a test of memory and learning acquisition.
  2. At the beginning of the experiment, the volunteer was placed in a room with another supposed volunteer (actually an actor), where during their initial small talk, the actor was instructed to mention that he had a heart condition.
  3. The Experimenter then came in to explain that there were two roles in the experiment (Teacher and Learner), and that the participants’ roles would be decided by draw from a hat (in truth, both pieces of paper in the hat had “teacher” written on them – guaranteeing that the real volunteer would always end up as Teacher).
  4. The subject and the actor were then placed in separate but adjoining rooms, where they could no longer see each other, but they could still communicate.
  5. The Teacher (the subject) was then given a small electric shock from an electric shock generator as a “sample” of what the Learner would experience during the experiment.

The procedure:

  1. The Teacher was given a list of word pairs to teach the Learner.
  2. He/she began by reading the list out.
  3. Then the Teacher would test the Learner by reading out the first word of the pair, followed by four possible answers.
  4. The Learner would press a button to indicate his response.
  5. If the Learner gave the wrong answer, then the Teacher would administer an electric shock to the Learner, with the voltage increasing in 15-volt increments for each incorrect answer.
  6. The subject believed that real electric shocks were being applied to the Learner – although in reality, the subject was hearing pre-recordings for each shock level.
  7. After a number of voltage increases, the actor started banging on the dividing wall between himself and the Teacher, and complaining about his heart condition.
  8. After the 300-volt shock, the Learner would stop responding to the Teacher’s questions.

If, at any time, the subject indicated the desire to stop the experiment, the Experimenter would give the following verbal prods (in this order):

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after the fourth verbal prod, then the experiment would end.

The Experimenter also had special verbal prods for specific questions:

  1. If the subject asked if the learner would be harmed, the Experimenter would respond with “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.”
  2. If the subject said that the learner clearly wanted to stop, the Experimenter would say “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on.”

Unless the subject continued to object after the fourth prod, the experiment was stopped after the subject had administered the maximum (fatal) 450-volt shock three times in succession.

The Results

64% of the subjects administered the maximum 450-volt shock.


And that’s 10 shocks past the point where the learner had stopped responding.

And just to be clear…

That experiment has been replicated multiple times in different settings. And the results are always the same: between 61% and 70% of the participants will torture and kill someone when instructed to do so by a clear voice of authority.

What it suggests

If you’re insistent on getting your own way, then with at least 70% of the people that you’re dealing with, you’ll get it without too much hassle.

And most of us are sheep.

It’s troubling.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at